IT IS the oldest of all conspiracy theories... Did Shakespeare really write all the works attributed to him, or were they turned out, like the TV scripts of today, in an Elizabethan version of a writers’ room?
If you can judge a book by its cover, the one on the latest version of the three Henry VI plays may be the best clue yet as to their provenance.
Oxford University Press has confirmed that the forthcoming volume will carry not one but two by-lines: that of Christopher Marlowe, next to Shakespeare’s own.
It is the first time a major publisher has acknowledged that the Bard alone may not have been solely responsible for his canon of work - though he does retain top billing on the new edition. Oxford said it had positively identified “Marlowe’s hand in the Henry VI plays”.
As long ago as the 18th Century, historians were speculating that Marlowe not only crossed paths with Shakespeare, but actively contributed to his oeuvre. Some even suggest that Marlowe’s death, supposedly in a drunken brawl, was faked in 1593 so that he might continue to write, using Shakespeare as his pseudonym, rather than go to jail for atheism.
The oft-peddled story has all the intrigue of the best conspiracy theories, especially since the fine details are lost in time.
Marlowe was born in the same year as Shakespeare and was the foremost tragedian of his day, before his rival was a marquee name. The Bard was said to have been greatly influenced by him, and whether his rise to fame shortly after Marlowe’s death is any more than coincidence may never be fully established.
The decision to use both their names on the upcoming edition, entitled New Oxford Shakespeare, comes after a panel of experts, using modern analytical methods, was asked to revisit the question of whether Shakespeare collaborated with others.
The scholars working on the collection said Marlowe’s contribution had been verified “strongly and clearly enough”, and that Shakespeare’s collaboration with others had been previously underestimated.
By way of evidence, the panel turned to the style and structure of Marlowe’s best-known works, including Doctor Faustus, the first dramatised version of the Faust legend of a scholar’s pact with the devil.
The 23-strong panel concluded that of Shakespeare’s 44 plays, 17 were written with the help of another author, or authors.
The experts included Gary Taylor of Florida State University and John Jowett at the University of Birmingham.
Mr Taylor said: “We have been able to verify Marlowe’s presence in those three plays strongly and clearly enough.”
He added: “We can now be confident that they didn’t just influence each other, but they worked with each other. Rivals sometimes collaborate.”
The new publication is unlikely to be the last word on the subject, and may open the floodgates for other claimants to Shakespeare’s crown.
One theory, first mooted in 1856, holds that the philosopher, essayist and scientist Sir Francis Bacon is the true author of the works.
Another contender is William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, who ran his own theatre company and who was related by marriage to William Cecil, on whom the character of Polonius in Hamlet is thought to be based. Some theorists suggest that his initials, WS, caused his name to be conflated with that of Shakespeare.